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Nuclear power moratorium debate returns

Minnesota state Sen. Matt Schmit of Red Wing listens to Senate committee testimony Tuesday about lifting a nuclear power plant moratorium. Behind him is Pam Gorman of Red Wing, Xcel Energy’s Manager, Community Relations and Economic Development (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL -- The owner of Minnesota's nuclear power plants has no plans to build a new one, but wants flexibility to do it if needed.

A state law bans nuclear plant construction.

It is time to give Minnesota utilities the ability to consider a new nuclear plant, said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, sponsor of a bill to overturn Minnesota's nuclear power plant moratorium.

"We appreciate the solid base of energy it provides," she said about nuclear power.

Nuclear plants near Red Wing and Monticello provide a significant amount of Minnesota's electrical power. Their licenses to operate end in the early 2030s, and if a new plant were to be considered, planning would need to begin soon.

An Xcel official said nuclear power is a good response to increasing rules to limit fossil fuel use.

Randy Evans said Xcel has no plans to build a new plant, "but at the bottom of the issue is we believe it does not make sense to leave any (energy) sources off the table."

Nuclear opponents said new plants cost too much, builders cannot find adequate financing and they offer too much safety risk.

"Nuclear power plants remain an unacceptable power source," said Bill Grant of the Minnesota Commerce Department.

Since the last Minnesota nuclear power plant started in 1973 and the last coal plant began producing power in 1987, the state has added wind, natural gas and biomass power, Grant said. Now, he said, the state is well positioned to get electricity from more natural gas plants and Canadian hydroelectric facilities.

The issue returned to the Minnesota Legislature Tuesday for the first time since Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was seriously damaged by a tsunami created by a major earthquake March 11, 2011. A bill that many thought would pass the Legislature that year ceased progress with the tsunami.

A Senate energy committee heard Kiffmeyer's bill and one specifically lifting the moratorium on the Monticello plant, but took no action.

Chairman John Marty, D-Roseville, said he doubted that any bill coming out of his committee would overturn the moratorium, but he predicted that there would be attempts to amend an overall energy bill in his committee and the full Senate to strip the ban.

Marty said that he wanted a thorough hearing of the issue since it is bound to come up for more debate and the House appears to lean toward passing an anti-moratorium bill.

The Prairie Island Indian Community, which sits next to the Red Wing-area nuclear plant, sent a statement to Marty's committee opposing lifting the moratorium.

The Tribal Council's statement said that the tribe is not opposed to nuclear energy, but any increase in generating capacity or storage of waste nuclear materials "is irresponsible without a long-term national solution for storing spent nuclear fuel."

The federal government promised 32 years ago to establish a place to store nuclear waste, but that never materialized. So waste is stored in hardened casks near the Prairie Island and Monticello facilities.

George Crocker of the North American Water Office opposes nuclear power, and said that the industry requires huge government oversight.

"There is no industry in the history of humanity that has more need for government than nuclear power," he said, because of safety and financial reasons.

Nathan Makala of the Heartland Institute in Chicago, however, said that nuclear power is safe and "requires far less land than other sources of green energy such as wind."

Nuclear supporters said it causes little pollution and can pump millions of dollars into the local economy. It provides "stable and affordable energy," Makala said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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